April 19, 2006 - From the MIR, April, 2006 issue

Department of Water Resources Pursues Strategy of Regional, Integrated Planning

A 25-year veteran of the Department of Water Resources, Mark Cowin serves as chief of the Division of Planning and Local Assistance, and his task is to help California's countless local water agencies plan for their future water needs and to help allocate state bond money intended for local projects. Given the countless number of local agencies and the immense complexity of the DWR itself, Cowin faces no easy task, but California's growing population and aging infrastructure make it all the more crucial. In the following MIR interview, Mr. Cowin explains his strategy for meeting the state's water demands and offers an appraisal of the politics and policies behind California water. As could be expected, he admits that it is a complex system, but he explains that transparency, strategic thinking, and cooperation among and within regions will pave the way to a secure water future.

Mark Cowin

One of the hottest words in state politics and infrastructure today is "levees." Please elaborate on the status of California's levee system and the threats to our levees' ability to distribute water to Southern California.

Levees aren't my expertise, but I have been close to the discussion over the past few months. Our levee system is in a state of disrepair. Many of our levees were built over the last 100 years without basic engineering in their design and construction. We now rely on those levees for a broad variety of functions, including protecting our cities and farms, other infrastructure, and water supplies for those Californians that depend on exports from the Delta. As witnessed during the heavy precipitation over the last few weeks, it doesn't take a lot to put our levees in a vulnerable position.

Unlike levee systems in other parts of the country, our Delta levees are permanently wet and under constant stress. High flows, as we have seen this week (April 18), only add to the stress. The storms have come and gone; but runoff from the Sierras has kept flood control systems at capacity. We have crews patrolling 24 hours a day trying to locate weak spots and make quick repairs. Obviously we need a big investment in repairing and strengthening those levees and it's going to take a big effort on the part of local, state, and federal agencies.

How does your division fit into DWR's mission and role, and what's the nature of the assistance you provide to local water agencies?

My division is primarily focused on planning for California's water management future. One of our major responsibilities is to update the California Water Plan. In January we released the latest update of the plan, following an intensive five-year development effort that engaged experts and stakeholders from throughout the state. The Water Plan will provide a strategic basis for all of California's water management planning. We also provide technical assistance to local agencies in their planning efforts and financial assistance through the administration of water bond measures. One of our biggest financial assistance programs is the Proposition 50 Integrated Regional Water Management Program, in which we're partnered with the State Water Resources Control Board. We have about a half-billion dollars to help regions design and implement integrated regional water management plans.

In the first round of funding for this program, we have $150 million available to regional entities. We've received $1.4 billion in requests for those funds – an overwhelming response. Including local cost-shares, those projects would include an investment of over $4 billion. That's a lot of money, and we think this type of program can provide incentives for good planning and to get local agencies to cooperate and make efficient investments in their regions.

In the January MIR, Michael George of Western Water had some choice words about what he considered the overly complex, inefficient, and secretive world of California water. And last month Ron Gastelum, formerly of MWD, implicitly agreed with Michael George, although he was more positive. Does the system work well? Is DWR accountable for the bond monies, or does it just disburse the money without paying attention to the projects themselves?

I agree that the system could use some reform. California has a very complex system for developing and implementing water policy. Decisions are made not only by the legislative and administrative branches of the federal and state governments, but also by hundreds and thousands of local agencies with water management responsibilities. It becomes very difficult to set a policy framework such that those decisions make sense when they're integrated with one another and that the system as a whole works appropriately.

Water is a very complex issue, technically and politically. It takes a lot of education to understand the principles of water management, and often folks who are put in a position to make critical decisions don't have enough education on the implications of their decisions. The water bond discussions over the last few months illustrate very clearly that the way we set water policy in California could use a close review and improvement.

In terms of our responsibility to manage and distribute water bonds, I think we do an admirable job of carrying out transparent processes, defining clear criteria for how we make decisions, and providing for public input.

One tough obstacle we consistently deal with is that California is tight about spending money on administration of water bonds. I would love to have more resources to follow-up on the investments that we've helped make and to report back on the benefits that those investments produced. We're trying to make changes in the future to require recipients of bond funds to do more of that type of reporting and allow us access to that information so we can make better decisions into the future and work that information into our statewide planning.

DWR has, as you suggest, a complex relationship with the municipal and regional water agencies that deliver water to California's residents. Elaborate a bit on that relationship. How could it be tweaked to be less contentious?

DWR wears a couple of different hats, and which hat we're wearing or perceived as wearing affects our relationships. As operator of the State Water Project, we have a particular relationship with the agencies that contract with water from the Project: we're more of a utility in that regard, so it's a business-like relationship. Our other hat is to serve as manager of statewide water resources.

Under this responsibility, our relationships are much different and have gone through a considerable transformation in the last decade. That's reflected in the California Water Plan update. At the state level we've only recently begun to accept the idea that the best water management planning happens at the regional level.

Our role and responsibility should be to facilitate good planning at the regional level and to make sure that it all fits together from the statewide perspective. That's a pretty big shift for us, and as we make that shift and define our new role there's the age-old question of just how much control the state ought to have. Should we carry out our responsibilities through regulation using the "stick" approach, or should we do it through more voluntary, incentive-based "carrot" approaches? That's a tension that underpins much of the state-level water policy debate.

We saw that in the debate over the water bond. The governor's proposal originally had $3 billion earmarked for investments in regional planning. Surprisingly, we didn't see a lot of support for that funding, and the concerns were mostly from water agencies that were apprehensive about how those monies would be distributed on a regional level-what the governance of those regions would be and how DWR would make decisions about who received funding. And at the end of the day, there wasn't enough support to carry the measure forward. We need to decide as a state what the roles of state agencies are in dealing with regional issues, how much control we want state agencies to provide.

The "Big Four" legislators are working in the capital to potentially reach an agreement to place an infrastructure bond on the November ballot. What is your prediction for its levee and water provisions?


I don't have any predictions. I dare say that with all of the indicators about the need for investment in the levees that something will come out in November. How much and under what requirements – whether funding is focused on levee strengthening or broader floodplain management – remains to be seen. It appears that there's not a lot of motivation to include funding for water management in that package.

One of the big stumbling blocks is whether or not surface storage ought to be funded. That's an unfortunate predicament, and I think the governor has expressed our position very well in the past weeks and months. We see surface storage as one of the many tools we ought to be looking at as part of a robust, diversified portfolio of water management strategies. But it's not going to be the silver bullet that carries California into the future. We need to look at projects on their individual merits and make decisions on a more rational basis rather than on the basis of the religion that many seem to adopt about whether dams are inherently good or bad.

The headlines in Northern California today read, "Creaky Levees Ripe for Disaster" while some officials, such as State Sen. Joe Simitian, would revive a version of the Peripheral Canal. How do we provide water infrastructure for the 21st century without repeating the mistakes of the last century?

I wish I had the answer to that one!

Education is, of course, number one. I don't think enough people in Southern California understand what a Delta levee disaster would mean to them. I think a lot more people have come to understand that their water supply is predicated on those levees protecting the Delta, but not enough people understand that.

The Peripheral Canal is just as controversial an issue as dams. At the DWR we're trying to suggest that must look at the broader infrastructure needs in the Delta. We all understand that the Delta is not sustainable in its current form in the long term and that we need to make plans for what the Delta is going to look like 50 or 100 years from now.

That vision should include not only water supply, but also land use, transportation, ecosystems, and all the other vital needs that the Delta provides for California. So, as the next Peripheral Canal debate arises, let's have a discussion about the whole Delta, not just the water supply aspects of the Delta.

Does California have the governance platform to engage in that larger discussion about the connections between land use and infrastructure planning?

We have a patchwork of governance platforms right now that I would like to see tied together better. A new example of governance is the Delta Vision Process that we are currently kicking off. This process will be co-chaired by the secretaries of Resources and BTH and we expect to put together a high-level blue ribbon panel to help guide the discussion. We intend to use this process to engage in an integrated resources debate as opposed to a water supply debate.

On the broader aspect of how to set policy for California water, I think California would benefit from an improved governance platform and forum for discussion. In producing the 2005 update to the California Water Plan, we engaged a 65-person advisory committee with representatives of diverse interests and expertise. We hope to build on the progress we've made and make future updates to the California Water Plan the place for these high level discussions. We're just now thinking about the next update, which will be due in five years, and what sort of advisory committees and public forums we need to make that happen.

Are single-purpose agencies such as DWR – which is the way California has done business over the past 40 years – part of the problem because they fail to cooperatively plan outside their silos?

I would hate to say that the Department is part of the problem, because we've been pretty progressive in recognizing that we need to reach out and do our planning hand-in-hand with other agencies. Obviously, to the extent that we remain isolated, we are a problem. But I think we're doing a good job changing that.

As part of the California Water Plan update process, we're reaching out to other agencies and trying to engage them so we have a strategic water management plan that works with other plans for California resources management. We're aware of the value of integration. We've encouraged local agencies to integrate their actions to make better-informed decisions and more efficient investments. But you've hit the nail on the head: many agencies remain isolated in their single-purpose issues, and that's not good for California.

As California's population continues to grow by hundreds of thousands per year, what will the state need to do to ensure adequate water supply?

The answer is front and center in the California Water Plan, which offers two key initiatives. First, we need to maintain the statewide water management systems that we've developed over the past decades. Those systems, like the SWP and Central Valley Project are going to be essential to provide base supplies for decades to come, so we need to shore those facilities up. But as California's population grows, the future lies in integrated regional water management planning.

Regions need to look at all the resources management strategies available to them: water-use efficiency, recycling, desalination, transfers, and others, and develop a balanced, diverse package of strategies to meet their needs. The Water Plan shows that there's enough water supply within those strategies to meet California's water needs for the foreseeable future. It's just a matter of making the right investments. Our role is to encourage good planning and wise investments.


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